The British Library

The National Library on the United Kingdom and the biggest library in the world by items catalogued, the British Library is well worth a visit. Peter Gray reports.

With a collection stretching to over 150 million items, the British Library is certainly comprehensive. Moreover, as one of six legal deposit centres in the land, the library is entitled to a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland. This means that the centre’s collection is increasing at the rate of 3 million books a year!

This collection includes an almost unparalleled array of treasures. The British Library is home to, amongst others, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Shakespeare’s first Folio, several drafts of the Magna Carta as well as an array of manuscripts by the Beatles.

Fortunately, the institution make it as easy as possible to access their collection. The centre have a variety of Reading Rooms, where students and visitors can access and research the library’s collections. Access to the rooms is free however visitors must obtain a Reader’s Pass first. Otherwise, readers can access the library’s collection online. The British Library has a vast array of resources online, with digitised manuscripts, a newspaper archive, a collection of photographically illustrated books as well as a collection of maps.

The institution also offers a range of exhibitions, with an excellent permanent exhibition and a range of excellent temporary exhibitions.

The British Library was initially part of the British Museum. The core of the collection was King George III’s Old Royal Library, which the monarch bequeathed to the British Museum 1757. The new library subsequently added the personal collections of Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane and Robert Harley. This collection was housed in a variety of locations with the bulk of the library contained in the Reading Room at the British Museum.

As the collection grew, discussion on finding a separate home for the library. For many years this new home was envisaged to be opposite the Museum on Great Russell Street. However, a campaign led by Dr George Wagner successfully challenged the proposals and an alternative site on the Euston Road was secured.

In 1972, an act of parliament created the British Library however it would be another 26 years until the new British Library building was open to the public. Designed by the architect Colin St John Wilson, the new building has attracted praise and criticism in equal measure. Once dubbed the “ugliest building in the world” by a parliamentary committee, the Library, famous for its squat red brick style, has attracted praise too, with Roger Bowdler of Historic England, calling it “one of England’s finest modern public buildings”.

The library does not just hold books and manuscripts however, the collection also covers journals, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, maps, stamps, prints and drawings. The collection covers both foreign language and English items.

For more information on the British Library, please click here.

For information on other places of interest in London, please click here.

-Places of Interest-
What: comprehensive library
Notable for: the Magna Carta
Where: Euston Road
Website: British Library